Gov. Lee's new focus: Mass COVID-19 testing in Tennessee's minority communities

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee listens as President Donald Trump speaks about protecting seniors, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday his administration intends to wrap up mass coronavirus testing of all state inmates by the end of next week and plans to start focusing on minority communities by moving on to high-density, low-income urban settings such as public housing.

The Republican said it's part of officials' continued focus on areas where large numbers of people live in concentrated areas and thus are more vulnerable to the disease that has so far officially caused the death of 237 Tennesseans.

Lee's announcement came as the number of Tennesseans who have tested positive for COVID-19 cracked the 14,000 barrier earlier in the day, rising 1.1% to 14,096 as an estimated 9,000 additional test results flooded in.

Black Tennesseans account for 21% of the state's positive cases overall, while 31% of the 237 deaths attributed to the virus have been black. That's above the U.S. Census Bureau's estimates that peg the total number of black residents statewide at 17.1%.

Because blacks and some other minority communities have greater concentrations of poverty and higher rates of some chronic illnesses, often due to lack of health care access, health experts say they are more vulnerable.

"We are testing every resident and every staff member at our long-term care facilities by the end of this week," Lee said of his ongoing efforts zeroing in on an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 seniors and others who live in nursing homes and similar facilities and some 70,000 staffers. "By the end of this next week, we will have tested every inmate at every state prison in this state."

Now, the governor said, "we are working specifically to target minority populations. We'll work with organizations that have large numbers of membership with minority populations. We're also working with community leaders in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga to strategize testing efforts and events in low-income urban communities, particularly vulnerable populations living in high-density residential settings."

Local leaders "have done tremendous work for that effort," Lee said. "We want to support that work and we'll be doing some targeted, high-value testing in those areas as well. The goal is just to make sure that every Tennessean has access to free testing."

The Tennessee National Guard will assist as it has at senior facilities and prisons.

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